If one wants to be moved and made uncomfortable by the changing spectrum and landscape of Bollywood movies and the harsh reality of oppressive social structures in an unequal Indian society, then Article 15 serves exactly that purpose.
While the Union budget of ‘new India’ exposits the roadmap of our national goal to become a $5 trillion economy, this movie uncovers the truth of a Bharat where caste-based forced labour manifests into manual scavenging and the sacred dictum of purity and pollution manifests into the brutal public flogging of Dalits.
In this era of majoritarian chest-thumping and tailor-made propaganda films, Article 15 comes as a strong attempt to provoke serious soul-searching on the oft-ignored caste question.
The movie brings out the sheer hypocrisy of the upper class pantheon who extrapolate the caste system as a British colonial construct and who also provide an uncritical defence of regressive social traditions like untouchability, prohibition of inter-caste marriages and so on.
The internal and external rifts within the boundaries of caste are also shown with brutal and brilliant honesty. The spectacular similarity with the contemporary political scenario and its critique is a bold divergence from Bollywood’s hero-worship culture.
This is especially true in its portrayal of Nishad as a character representing real-life firebrand Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad, who was incarcerated under the National Security Act in the recent past. Its critique on electorally-motivated attempts of so-called caste unity by conservative, right-wing politicians like Mahantji is remarkable.
If anyone has rightfully done justice to the ‘policewala’ genre, which is dominated by the likes of Ajay Devgan and Ranveer Singh, it has to be Ayushman Khurrana.
Khurana doesn’t just play the eternally confident quintessential character who jumps over thelas at the mandi, rides on cars, spouts macho dialogue. Here, he’s plays a policeman who a human in every possible way; tough but equally sensitive, vulnerable and confused.
Subjected to the glaring realities of people who make our lives easier for just over two hours, the movie forces viewers to acknowledge the working and labour class as equal and to see the pattern of caste and socio-financial conditions.
This leads to the greater understanding of how prevalent caste atrocities have been in India over time; of a damaging history that hasn’t seem much correction.
The truth of the matter, of course, is that a large part of India remains marginalised because of caste, where opportunities of advancing, of breaking away from menial chores and of coming up in society are denied over and over again.
The sheer inhumanity of exclusion is still deeply embedded within our society, be it at education, jobs, housing, or in context of the freedom to exercise religious beliefs or live without the threat of ever increasing hate crimes and targeted violence.
It had to take an Anubhav Sinha and Ayushmann Khurrana combination, along with the brilliant support cast of Sayani Gupta, Isha Talwar, Ronjini Chakarborty, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra and Nassar, to invest in a movie which tries its best to deliver the heinousness of a crime so widespread and far-reaching, yet invisible to naked eye.
Article 15‘s portrayal of gruesome sexual violence as an extreme form of upper-caste hegemony and domination is also incredibly impactful. The series of events depicted, reminiscent of the Badaun gangrape case, powerfully question the ineffectual law and order mechanism and weak public conscience.
While one, like Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana), is completely disgusted with the situation in backward regions shown in the films, the covert complicity of urbane classes in similar acts of private discrimination and oppression – like having separate utensils, lifts or forced domestic labour – is also questioned.
The comfort of caste privilege and consequent caste blindness are realised when the film puts out the reality of opposition to social justice measures like reservation and discrimination against lower caste police personnel by upper castes in its trademark unabashed manner.
Certain dialogues like, “Power ki alag hi jaat hoti hai [Power has a caste of its own]” ring in your ears.
But the film is also optimistic in its own way.
Though the characters are suffering and have their own fears and insecurities, they are no damsels in distress, and are waging a war against the system.
There are posters of ‘missing girl’ being pasted next to a wall painting which calls for the empowerment of young girls through education and a bidaai song being played while the father of deceased girls is performing their last rites.
The film tries to touch upon all the gruesome facets of lives of the marginalised community through excellent contextual cinematography and plot-setting – be it manual scavenging, the relegating of animal skinning work and brutal beatings for the ‘crime’ of temple entry.
Amidst all this, you lack back thinking, “Nobody deserves this!”, and realise the world of difference between their everyday struggle and yours.
Jatav’s question resonates for once and all, “Aakhir kab tak jhaadu maarenge? [Till when do you expect us to engage in filthy and menial jobs?]”
Ultimately, the film celebrates the spirit of a brand of Indian nationalism that is essentially aspiring for the social transformation of our grim realities by using constitutional principles of equality and provisions like Article 15 as a potent tool.
Prannv Dhawan leads the Law and Society Committee at NLSIU Bengaluru. Bhavya Arora is a student at Hansraj College, Delhi University and edits the college’s periodic publications.